Seventy Years of Modern Dance

By Thom, Rose Anne | Dance Magazine, June 1997 | Go to article overview

Seventy Years of Modern Dance


Thom, Rose Anne, Dance Magazine


It would have been hard for those who began a dance magazine in 1927 to envision the importance of modem dance in the subsequent history of the art. At that time, those responsible for developing the Los Angeles -- based predecessor of this magazine, The American Dancer, were more concerned with careers in Hollywood films, musical theater, and, to a lesser degree, the ballet stage. They little surmised the role that modern dance would play in creating a distinct identity for American dance -- its repertory, the dancers and choreographers, their theories and techniques. How could they know that modem dance, more than any other style, would take the pulse of an entire culture? Indeed, from its beginning modern dance had a social conscience.

Isadora Duncan died in 1927 (four months after Dance Magazine's debut issue). The obituary in the October American Dancer acknowledged her originality and inspiration, for the first matriarch of modern dance had reflected and anticipated attitudes about nature and the natural body, about women and artistry, and about politics and social change. Her dancing -- a personal vocabulary of movement developed to express her individuality -- initiated a century of intellectual and artistic discussion focused on the body and its capacity for much more than brilliant rhythmic and spatial design. Duncan centered the dancing artist firmly in the turnoil of his or her time, politically and intellectually. The best choreographers who followed her responded with aesthetic vitality and imagination to ideas that touched their very lives.

It was also around 1927 that Martha Graham opened the doors to her first school in New York City. The Great Depression followed closely. Graham's contemporaries built on Duncan's legacy and the training many had gained from years in the Denishawn company, founded by Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn. Duncan had challenged prevailing opinion when she chose to dance to revered nineteenth-century symphonic music. In the 1930s musical choices ranged from poetry, folk songs, and ballads to compositions by Scriabin, Bartok, and Copland. While Duncan, in some blatantly racist essays, had disdained the influence of African culture on American dance and music in the 1920s, and Shawn and St. Denis were accused of anti-Semitism in the latter years of Denishawn, the choreographers who followed them embraced ways of moving and sounds that reflected the multiplicity of cultures and experiences of their homelands. Their dances revealed the reality as well as the mythology of America. Hemsley Winfield, Edna Guy, and Helen Tamiris were among the many who found inspiration dancing to spirituals, while Graham's Frontier (1935) and Charles Weidman's American Saga (1936) explored other aspects of the American experience.

Some choreographers were more forceful than others in aligning modem dance with the political and social concerns that rocked the decade of the thirties. But all looked issues of labor, fascism, and racism squarely in the face and explored related themes heroically in works like Jane Dudley's Harmonica Breakdown (1940), Doris Humphrey's With My Red Fires (1936), and Lester Horton's The Mine (1935).

By the forties, Graham was exploring the psychological issues that entranced her generation by using themes from Greek mythology as paradigms of contemporary neuroses, as in Night Journey (1947). Having researched dances from Africa and the Caribbean, Katherine Dunham brought their extraordinary diversity to audiences through works like Rites de Passage (1941). Classes in Dunham's school familiarized students with these unique styles. Unlike the movies and ballet, which mirrored the segregation of American society, modern dance welcomed dancers and choreographers without regard to race. In the 1950s, Alvin Ailey and Donald McKayle choreographed dances that reflected African American culture using their rich musical tradition: the former's Revelations (1960) revealed the community's deep spirituality, the latter's Rainbow Round My Shoulder (1959) the injustices suffered. …

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